26 April 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 11: Listening to ‘Glory Denied’

The cost of glory: Mayes and Worra (foreground), with the reflections of who they once were (Blalock and Mancasola, background).
All photos courtesy of Ellen Appel.

The newest work in this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, Glory Denied examines the relationship between Col. Floyd James Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in United States history, and his wife, Alyce. By the time she declares, “We both went through hell,” we’ve seen that she’s right.

For nine years, the Vietnamese imprisoned Jim Thompson, and for much of that time, Alyce didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. Struggling to rear four children, she had to make tough choices, and when she saw a way out of her own kind of solitary confinement, she took it. When Jim comes home, he has to contend with all kinds of change.

Nothing is what it was, and Cipullo dramatizes that reality by casting four singers to tell this story: the young couple and the older couple. In them we see innocence turned to anguish, and Dean Anthony’s staging coordinates almost every movement, until the singers are like mirror images, shadows, or ghosts of one another. Cipullo’s score, performed here in a reduced orchestration for ten players (including one very busy percussionist), finds surprising beauty in the pain, and even when he’s depicting torture, the music remains accessible — which is not to say easy to listen to.

Caroline Worra as Alyce.

Our sympathy for Alyce is earned in several ways, including the sublime little aria she sings, “After you hear me out,” when she’s reunited with her husband and tells him the truth. It’s suggested that Alyce herself had a difficult upbringing, and we can understand that she’s committed to making her own children’s lives less arduous. Moreover, the older Alyce is sung by Caroline Worra, who’s sung the role before and who is endowed not only with a radiant soprano voice but also with one of the most infectious smiles in Opera World: it’s almost impossible not to smile back at her. (In her presence I have sometimes felt like a grinning idiot.)

Most of the anguish then falls on the broad shoulders of native-Texan baritone Michael Mayes, whose older Thompson storms and keens through a haze of alcohol (and, in later scenes, the aftermath of a debilitating stroke). Even when he achieves an inner peace — in a beautiful speech to a church congregation, and in his attempt to show Alyce his forgiveness — the wounds of war refuse to heal.

Looking as pristine and wholesome as Tricia Nixon, soprano Sydney Mancasola (a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions just weeks ago) sings young Alyce, patiently waiting for her husband’s return and reading aloud her letters to him. They’re filled with the chattiest banalities, from reruns of The Wizard of Oz to the latest issue of Readers Digest — so bland that they can’t possibly contain the whole truth.

Caroline Worra and Sydney Mancasola as Alyce.

Though Sydney and Caroline look almost nothing like offstage, onstage they really do seem like one woman at two points in her life, and the sweetness of Sydney’s singing is reflected in Caroline’s voice, even as Caroline takes it to angrier, more troubled places. Likewise, it seems natural that the voice of tenor David Blalock (who up until recently was a baritone) might deepen over years of hardship to resemble Mayes’ baritone, and by sheer luck, Mayes seems to have inherited the famous Blalock Dimples. David is so callow, so eager and sweet in performance that Thompson’s fate seems especially harsh.

Throughout the opera, Dean Anthony reminds us of the morass of paper that consumes this couple’s lives: letters, the pages of a calendar, newspapers, and magazines are clutched, then scattered to the floor. Tellingly, the last page of Alyce’s calendar falls when she gives up on her marriage; Thompson uses the magazines to catalogue the changes in American society in his ranting aria, “Turn on, tune in, welcome home.”

Lives bound up in paper: Michael Mayes (foreground)
and David Blalock.

It’s a mystery to me how the singers manage to coordinate their movements so precisely, when as far as I can tell there’s not one moment when all of them can see one another — and it’s a greater mystery how conductor Tyson Deaton keeps the score together, since, in Richard Kagey’s set design, the orchestra is seated behind the acting area, and the cast have their backs to Tyson. Yet somehow he knits a tight ensemble that seems like the expression of a single consciousness, and seldom have I found greater occasion to marvel at the intuitive collaboration of musicians. Tyson is fearless in all this music’s many moods: I found especially tender and meaningful the delicate duet for piano and cello near the opera’s conclusion. And all the singers and players respect Cipullo’s immense gift for prosody. (It’s almost impossible now for me to imagine any other setting of the phrase “After you hear me out.”)

In talking with me on WRR-FM last weekend about the role that contemporary works play in his company, Fort Worth Opera general director Darren Keith Woods explained that it’s not enough for a piece to be new: he wants “to start conversations within the community,” as he’s done with works including last season’s Hydrogen Jukebox, for example, and perhaps most memorably with Angels in America in 2008, when Darren formed an ad hoc consortium of arts groups, educators, and medical professionals to discuss the impact of AIDS on American society.

Thus, aiming toward the goal of stimulating conversation, talkback sessions with the cast and conductor follow the performances of Glory Denied. (Lockheed-Martin, a local employer not disinterested in the effects of warfare on the community, sponsors these sessions.) Audiences are encouraged to ask questions about the Thompsons and about Cipullo’s score — but also to share their own memories and experiences of the Vietnam era and the American wars that have followed. The other evening we heard from members of the community who understood Glory Denied in the context of World War II — and Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as Vietnam.

Older Thompson (Michael Mayes) relives the captivity
of his younger self (David Blalock),
while the unwitting Younger Alyce (Sydney Mancasola)
remains at home.

As I say, most of us are unlikely to be held nine years in a P.O.W. camp — or even nine minutes — and we should feel grateful for that. But so long as our society makes war, then war must affect us, our loves and our lives, even when some of us (like me) may believe ourselves sheltered and safe. This reality ought to make us question all manner of assumptions.

What after all is the “glory” that is denied here? Military victory, a hero’s homecoming, or indeed any recognition of a man’s service to his country? Or is it instead the success of a marriage, a woman’s love for her husband, the steadfastness of character that’s required simply not to leave? All of the above? Until we discuss the questions, we can’t calculate the cost of glory and our shared pursuit of it.

Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo
For Worth Opera Festival 2013

At the McDavid Studio at Bass Hall
Through May 11

For tickets and more information, click here.

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